Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's recent reviews of Chicken & Biscuits and Written by Phillis
The Puzzle does not have a traditional story structure, but rather functions as a fluid and surreal series of events. It begins with a two clowns, Finneas and Quinton, living out a sort of loop in their strange scrap-yard home. The pair are finally about to complete a jigsaw puzzle (or are they?), but their plans are upended when a non-verbal young man wanders into their space and unintentionally hides several crucial pieces of the puzzle. The Boy forces Finneas and Quinton to rethink the way they communicate and eventually allows them to shift the way they experience the world around them. The unexpected blend of clowning and neurodivergence delivers a powerful message about the power of empathy and connection.
Professional clown Daniel Passer was captivating as upbeat Finneas, bringing an authentic sense of fun and wonder to the production. David Shiner portrayed his foil Quinton with a relatable sense of skepticism and frustration. Arguing, conspiring, and retelling the same jokes, the vibe between Passer and Shiner was somewhere between an old married couple and the characters from a Beckett play. Co-directors David Shiner and Bill Fennelly clearly gave the cast ample freedom to play, and the drama was best when Passer and Shiner were just clowning around with each other and Michael Stahler.
Stahler explicitly drew on his experience as an autistic actor to play The Boy and his performance was stellar. Every interaction Stahler had with the "clowns"–and with Shawn Fisher's darkly creative set–was full of meaning and soul. Unfortunately, the slow pace and lack of narrative progress ultimately made for a disjointed and slow-moving experience despite the best efforts of this talented cast and creative team. I would love to see another production of The Puzzle that keeps the genuine interaction and insight into non-verbal individuals, but tightens up the pace and improves the narrative flow.
The Puzzle had an extended run through June 4, 2023, at the at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd, Media PA. For more information, visit www.hedgerowtheatre.org.